Drought blamed for food scarcity

The Syrian finance minister has said withdrawing bread subsidies is a “red line”, but failing harvests and soaring international wheat prices may be forcing a re-think.
(Abigail Fielding-Smith/IRIN)

Two years of drought has left many farmers and herders without an income and has severely limited cereal production in Syria, pushing up local food prices and putting pressure on basic food supplies, according to UN and Syrian government officials. 

IRIN's in-depth on the global food crisis

In 2008, Syria had to import wheat for the first time after a shortage caused by a second year of drought, which the Syrian government says has affected about a million people so far. Emergency wheat stocks have been depleted though adequate supplies remain.

“There is still enough food in Syria to go round,” Abdullah Mawazini, Public Information Officer for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Syria, said. “But we are worried about the provision of basic materials. It is a dangerous indicator for Syria that last year we had to import wheat.”

Syria usually keeps three years’ worth of wheat stocks, Mawazini said, but in 2008 it agreed to sell supplies to countries struggling with a lack of food, including Egypt and Tunisia.

''There is still enough food in Syria to go round. But we are worried about the provision of basic materials. It is a dangerous indicator for Syria that last year we had to import wheat.''

Syria is usually self-sufficient in providing food for its 21.6 million population. UN agencies warn that the country could become more food insecure if rainfall over the next two months remains as low as it has been at the start of 2009.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that wheat production in non-irrigated areas of Syria dropped by 82 percent compared with the previous season, while the barley harvest in non-irrigated areas failed entirely. Overall wheat and barley yields dropped by 47 and 67 percent respectively compared to the previous year, said the FAO.

Because of a high level of subsistence farming in Syria, many families have lost not just their income, but their means of feeding themselves. “Many farmers’ crops failed entirely,” Abdulla Tahir Bin Yehia, FAO representative in Syria, said. “It hits them very hard. No crop means no income. And on top of that they need to buy food and seeds which are at higher prices because of the crop failure.”

Knock-on effects

The knock-on effects of reduced food production include a rise in food prices, malnutrition, migration from the countryside, an increased school dropout rate and added pressure on the job market as farmers seek other employment.

“The reduced availability of wheat and barley has contributed to increases in the prices of food items in the Syrian market,” Mawazini said. The Syrian bread and cereals price index marked a 27 percent increase over January 2008 prices. This, a joint UN report said, has outstripped household incomes and the purchasing power of the general population, especially in the drought-affected areas.

Photo: WFP
Failed crops have led to a higher school dropout rate and greater migration from the country to urban areas

Herders have also been affected. With reduced pasture, there is less space for their animals to graze. The cost of animal feed has soared. Some 59,000 small herders (those with less than 100 animals) lost almost all their livestock. This has led to drastic measures.

“Herders and farmers have sold off their assets: land, animals, houses, furniture, jewellery - all for low prices,” Bin Yehia said. “The poorest are affected most. These include many women-headed households.”

Many of those affected have migrated to urban areas, causing rural school dropout rates to rise. According to the UN, migration rates from rural to urban areas have increased by 20 to 30 percent year-on-year from 2007 to 2008.

Drought appeal

A drought appeal was launched by UN agencies in Syria in September 2008. A US$1.8 million emergency operation by the FAO identified 9,630 farmers to receive 300kg of wheat seeds or 150kg of barley seeds – enough for each farmer to plant a two-hectare crop. These were distributed in December and January.

It also helped stall migration. “Many farmers came back to the villages when they heard they were eligible for seeds,” Bin Yehia of FAO said. “It is imperative to future food security that they do not give up farming.”

The joint FAO-WFP response continues until May 2009. But if rainfall continues to be low, a new appeal will be launched.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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